M1D1, may-die, or as I like to call it, “the ports on the back of some of my pedals that I have absolutely no idea what to do with!” For many players, MIDI is one of the great unknowns of guitar gear: for some pedals, it’s right before us but seems to be a universe away. Complicated, confusing, challenging. Well, that’s at least how I felt until last Friday.
This week on TPS, Dan & Mick explained the mysteries of MIDI. Thanks to this episode, I have a guide in hand to get through the MIDI universe to both create new sounds and control them in entirely new ways.
Know the MIDI Lingo: PCM, CC, and Clock
Part of the challenge of getting into MIDI is that it is a world littered with acronyms. Take MIDI itself, which stands for “Musical Instrument Digital Interface.” As Dan described, the term refers to “a digital language used to control anything that has a MIDI interface.” There are, however, other acronyms used to describe different types of communications that happen between your MIDI enabled gear. Unless you’re up on these, your MIDI journey will be full of “mayday” distress calls.
The first short-hand reference is PCM. This stands for “Program Control/Change Message.” This refers to a message sent from a MIDI controller to a piece of gear telling it to recall a saved program or sound. As Dan demonstrated using the Strymon Timeline in combo with the GigRig G2, it was possible to hit a single switch on the controller to pull up an custom, immaculate swell delay instantly, without having to scroll through banks and banks and banks of settings to access the sound.
The second term you’ll hear is CC, which stands for “Continuous Control.” This is another sort of message dispatched digitally through MIDI enabled gear, which, as Dan explained, allows you “to access the individual knobs inside the pedal.” The difference here is that you’re not calling up one sound—remember, that’s the deal with PCMs—but one specific parameter of that sound.
The third term in the MIDI dictionary is “Clock.” As Dan described, this refers to sending a “tempo signal through MIDI to the rest of the pedals. So for anything that has a time-based component, this is relevant.” This becomes super important when you have two effects, like delay and tremolo, that are tricky to get in time when tapped separately. As Mick noted, using a MIDI controller to send a clock message to multiple pedals is how you do it with precision and ease: your tremolo pulses and delay pings will never be out of step ever again.
So that’s the terms and theory, how does this all work in practice?
Getting Going with MIDI: Using a Controller to Send PCMs
There are two key things you’ll need in your rig to get MIDI ready: a controller to send messages and gear that can receive it.
Since MIDI is essentially a language spoken between gear, you’ll need a controller to start the conversation. As Dan described, “a MIDI controller is basically a footswitch that has buttons that send out PCMs.” These come in all shapes and sizes, and in the case of the GigRig G2, is an integral part of the switching system. In that case, you can also send out multiple program change messages to a set of pedals with the click of a single button.
One of the simplest (yet smartest) controllers is the Chase Bliss Faves switch, which is tailored to work directly with pedals such as the Chase Bliss Brothers, Condor, Warped Vinyl, or Tonal Recall. It’s about the size of a mini pedal, yet allows you to store and recall crazy amounts of MIDI settings for Chase Bliss gear on the fly.
So you’ve got a controller starting the conversation. Now you’ll need to ensure your effect pedals can listen. Simply put, not all pedals are MIDI enabled and not all pedal need it. As Mick commented, “if you have a single sound pedal, you don’t need MIDI: they’re either on or off.” However, when you’re talking about gear that has the ability to create sounds through deep customization and the ability to store those sounds in banks, MIDI can be a real asset. Most pedals by Strymon and Chase Bliss Audio, for example, feature some type of MIDI capabilities.
Getting Going with MIDI: Using an Expression Pedal to Manage CCs
If you want to engage individual aspects of your sounds using MIDI, you’ll need a MIDI expression pedal that’s ready to rock. This week on TPS, the Source Audio Reflex Universal Expression Pedal did the duty of controlling the individual parameters of the MIDI pedals onboard.
When partnered up with the Strymon Timeline and Eventide H9, Mick demonstrated how the pedal was set up for sweeping through a set range of the reverb level on the Eventide, while simultaneously increasing the delay level on the Strymon. That’s right, the Source Audio in a single fluid motion is sending two CC messages on two channels to control complementary settings on the pair of MIDI enabled pedals. As Dan described, “This gives you instant access to every parameter.” Volume, gain, delay time, modulation, it’s all there. As Dan described, the brain in the Source Audio is massive, since it also understands that those expression parameters are different depending on the MIDI program engaged and even lets you set the range of the sweep for any effect.
Whether you’re a MIDI newbie or needing some new gear to extend your MIDI range, be sure to stop in at Riff City to explore pedals, controllers, and expression devices to get your gear talking.
TPS Rig Rundown
Guitars: Fender Custom Shop 1963 Telecaster, Collings I-30LC.
Amps: Marshall 1987x, Fender Hot Rod Deluxe III.
Pedals: D’Addario Pedal Tuner, Source Audio Reflex Universal Expression Pedal, Ramble RX Kismet, Chase Bliss Audio Warped Vinyl, Strymon TimeLine, Eventide H9, Chase Bliss Audio Midibox, TheGigRig MIDI Driver, TheGigRig G2.